Posts Tagged ‘housework’

Loving Working

“We clean to give space for Art.”
        Micaela Miranda, Freedom Theatre, Palestine

Work was a shining refuge when wind sank its tooth
into my mind. Everything we love is going away,
drifting – but you could sweep this stretch of floor,
this patio or porch, gather white stones in a bucket,
rake the patch for future planting, mop the counter
with a rag. Lovely wet gray rag, squeeze it hard
it does so much. Clear the yard of blowing bits of plastic.
The glory in the doing. The breath of the doing.
Sometimes the simplest move kept fear from
fragmenting into no energy at all, or sorrow from
multiplying, or sorrow from being the only person
living in the house.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women of color – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 


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kitchen wall art curtains british flag

Here’s what I know about laundry, after a decade and a half or so: it’s one of the chores I don’t mind.

Make no mistake: sometimes it’s a pain, especially when I’m not eager to schlep a full hamper down three flights of stairs to the basement and back up again. I also know that it’s easier for me than for many people, thanks to my electric washer and dryer: I don’t have to spend hours scrubbing clothes, or days waiting for them to dry.

That being said, I love a warm, soft pile of clean laundry, heaped onto a bed so I can sort it and put it away. I love a full drawer of patterned cloth napkins, a neatly folded stack of clean sheets. I love emptying the laundry hampers after a trip or a harried week.

As Kathleen Norris has noted, laundry is “one of the very few tasks in life that offers instant results, and this is nothing to sneer at.” Laundry is also one of the ways I take care of myself and my husband, putting a part of our lives to rights, creating (some) order where there was previously chaos. And about once a week these days, you can find me combining laundry with a couple of other rituals: podcasts and scones.

I’m a slow listener to only a couple of podcasts. I love Krista Tippett’s wise, thoughtful, wide-ranging conversations with all sorts of folks on On Being, though I admit I don’t get to them all. And I never miss an episode of All the Books!, which features Liberty and a rotating cast of other women talking about the latest and greatest books they’re reading, or highlighting old favorites. There are frequent digressions to other topics, which is part of the fun, and I love hearing their warm, funny, generous voices in my ear as I putter around the kitchen, washing dishes and wiping counters and watering the thirsty geraniums.

The third part of this ritual is Molly’s scones, which I’ve been eating for breakfast nearly every day for a couple of years now. They’re hearty and delicious and not too sweet, and by now I know the recipe by heart and by hand.

I measure out the flour, whisk in baking powder and salt, grate in a few tablespoons of butter and stir in white sugar and dried cranberries. I can do all these things while I’m listening, and while the laundry spins downstairs. I pop them into the oven and then head downstairs to check on the dryer, or hang up sweaters or corral my husband’s socks. I come back up and pull out the cookie sheet, letting it cool on the counter. And I exhale.

It’s been a fast and full stretch around here lately: change, the only constant of the past few years, has been coming faster than I can keep up with. I’ve found myself scattered and frustrated, more often than I care to admit. But this ritual and a few others, when I can sink into them, help ground me.

As we head into summer – with more change ahead – you can (sometimes) find me in the kitchen, baking and folding and listening.

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dish rack kitchen

Well, let’s tackle this pile of greasy plates and look as if we liked it.”

“I do like it…I’ve always liked washing dishes. It’s fun to make dirty things clean and shining again.”

“Oh, you ought to be in a museum,” snapped Nora.

—L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Poplars

I thought of these lines last week as I pulled on my rubber gloves to tackle yet another sinkful of dirty dishes, pots and silverware. Even with just the two of us at our house, I’m constantly surprised by the amount of time I spend in front of the kitchen sink, scrubbing and rinsing. (The hubs usually dries and puts away.)

With a full-time job, lots of other things on my mind and no dishwasher, there are definitely times I empathize with Nora Nelson, above. (Though she and Anne Shirley were tackling the aftermath of a big wedding supper – which isn’t on my usual to-do list.) But even if I start out grumbling, I’ve often come around to Anne’s perspective by the time I turn off the hot water. There’s something tangible and satisfying about this work: scrub, soap, rinse, fill the dish rack. I’ve even been known to turn to it as a form of stress relief, like Pacha’s wife in The Emperor’s New Groove. (“I gotta go wash something!”)

I’ve written before about how pottering around the house can lower my blood pressure, or get me out of my head and back into my body after a long day of sitting and clicking at the computer. I am not an immaculate housekeeper and I am fiercely proud of having a career outside the home – which is (still!) not an option for so many women everywhere. Sometimes I find it a bit ironic that I come back to the computer to extol the virtues of housekeeping. But as Kathleen Norris has famously noted, laundry and other household tasks offer instant, visible results – and that is nothing to sneeze at.

Also, crucially, washing dishes is something I choose to do. It is necessary in a sense: we need dishes to eat on, and the dirty plates would eventually take over the kitchen. But I also believe this is part of the work of adulthood, no matter your gender or occupation: making and caring for a home. I chose this life (and these dishes, for that matter) – so I also choose to participate in the work of caring for them.

I’m still not above a hearty Nora-like growl once in a while. But like most people, I love to see the fruits of my labor – and a kitchen full of clean dishes (and, preferably, delicious food) is a pretty good way to do that.

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dish rack kitchen

Pottering. It’s a lovely word, isn’t it?

The word makes me think of actual clay pots, or a backyard garden with sprays of flowering vines growing over a wooden fence. It calls to mind lazy afternoons, shafts of sunlight pouring down through the trees, mild breezes and blue skies. And work – but not the backbreaking kind. The gentle, satisfying kind. Moving things around, digging, arranging, fiddling a bit, until they’re just right.

I don’t usually associate “pottering” with housework. But recently I’ve realized they are often one and the same in my life.

As a writer and editor in this increasingly digital age, I do most of my paid work on a computer. After a day at the office, answering emails, writing news features, managing social media, my hands and eyes often long for something tangible. Something I can touch and see.

I get home, these days, when it’s just getting dark, my hands full of mail and books, my brain often tired and fragmented from the work of the day. I shuck off my coat, drop my bag on the bench by the kitchen door, and often, I plunge straight into some form of pottering.

It’s not what you’d call heavy housework, most days. I save those tasks for weekends, when the hubs is home and can split the work with me. The tidying and maintenance I do in the evenings is just that: tossing a load of laundry in the washing machine. Sorting a stack of mail (often recycling most of it). Pulling on my rubber gloves and tackling a sinkful of dishes. Moving papers, clothes and general clutter back where they belong.

Sometimes I trim the stems on a vase of flowers, or rearrange the stacks of books that cover most of the available surfaces in our apartment. Usually, there’s some cooking to be done, and then I often eat alone because the hubs is working late, saving leftovers for him. After dinner, there are more dishes to wash, or sometimes a bit of baking. At least twice a day – once in the morning and once at night – the red teakettle sings its whistling song.

It’s not always as idyllic as I make it sound. I admit it: sometimes I grumble at the multiplying properties of dirty dishes and balled-up socks. Occasionally there’s a stack of mail I walk by and ignore. The work is never done, exactly, even when the clothes are folded and the sink is empty and shining. But then, the work of making a home is never quite done, either. It is constant, ongoing. A process.

Like so many things, pottering isn’t a cure-all: sometimes I go to bed still worn out and enervated, or I despair of ever conquering the latest list of household tasks. But most of the time, I appreciate the chance to feel useful and productive while also relaxing a bit. It’s good for my brain, my body and my soul to sink, for a little while, into the work of my hands.

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daffodils sunshine morning table

Mostly what I hate about cleaning is how futile it feels. Wipe down the kitchen countertops, and crumbs appear an hour or two later. Sweep the floor, and you’re chasing dust bunnies inside of a week. My kitchen has the kind of dingy yellowish linoleum that never looks clean, even when freshly mopped, and the second I conquer the pile of dishes in the sink, more dirty plates and glasses seem to spring up out of nowhere. And I don’t even have children.

For the record, my husband is a stellar dish-washer and -dryer (we don’t have a mechanical dishwasher) and the only reason he doesn’t do the laundry is because I’m a wee bit compulsive about it. He takes out the trash, and we split the rest of the housekeeping duties between us. But still, the accumulation of life’s daily messes tends to build until it threatens to overwhelm me once in a while.

During our most recent blizzard (which conveniently fell just after the New Year), I tackled a few “dead zones” in our apartment – small, neglected places where clutter tends to collect, resulting in a constant low level of frustration whenever I pass those spots. I made a list, then set to work, clearing off dresser surfaces, organizing a few drawers, and (biggest triumph of all) cleaning out my desk, which I’d intended to do for at least two years.

This is the kind of cleaning that feels satisfying: decluttering, organizing, bringing harmony and order to spaces where chaos previously reigned. It’s admittedly a small-scale victory, and it doesn’t negate the daily work that still needs to be done: the laundry, the dishes, the making of the bed. But it’s nonetheless an accomplishment, a small forward movement toward a cleaner living space and a calmer life.

I haven’t yet tackled all the trouble spots on the list, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, next time I’m totally fed up with the Sisyphean nature of scrubbing out the sink or cleaning the microwave, I can pull out that list, pick a dead zone to clear out, and give myself a quick hit of cleaning satisfaction. (Possible spots include: the top of the fridge; the “miscellaneous” pantry shelves; a couple of canvas bins that collect oddments of all kinds.)

Anyone else struggle with the futility of the daily cleaning grind? If you have tips to share, I’m all ears.

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“My Monday nights seem to be about washing things,” I wrote in a recent journal entry. It’s not confined to Mondays, really – even with just two of us, there are always (it seems) dishes piling up in the kitchen sink (someday we’ll have a dishwasher), and mounds of laundry piling up in our two separate laundry baskets. J did his own laundry – quite capably, I’m sure – before I married him, but I am so picky about my laundry that I took over the task for both of us. And, well, it’s never done – no news to any of you who also do laundry, no matter whom you live with or how tidy they are.

I don’t really mind doing laundry – it does itself after I load it in, and then I just have to toss it in the dryer and check on it once in a while. But whenever I get frustrated with the mounds, my thoughts turn to a beloved passage from Kathleen Norris’ book The Cloister Walk:

Laundry seems to have an almost religious importance for many women. We groan about the drudgery but seldom talk about the secret pleasure we feel at being able to make dirty things clean, especially the clothes of our loved ones, which possess an intimacy all their own. Laundry is one of the very few tasks in life that offers instant results, and this is nothing to sneer at.

Several summers ago now, I spent two weeks at Camp Blue Haven, writing and hiking and soaking in the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo mountains (and, appropriately, healing from a tough year). My stay lasted 13 days – in other words, long enough to require a laundry session – and so, on the quiet Sunday between the first week and the second, I sat in the doorway of the spare, simple laundry room in the shower house next to our cabin, reading Norris’ words and listening to the dryer thumping steadily behind me and the rain thrumming down outside. The fresh scent of detergent and dryer sheets mingled with the smell of summer rain, and both scents melded with Norris’ simple, honest, beautiful words to wash both my clothes and my soul clean.

Years later, as I trek up and down the stairs, from the basement (where the dryer is) to our second-floor apartment and back again, I think of those words, and that rainy afternoon, and those two weeks of soul-laundering long ago. And when I spread the fresh clean clothes out on the guest-room bed, and fold and sort and stow away, I breathe in the scent of lavender, and of memory.

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ironing on a Monday

I’ve been keeping up with NaPoWriMo in spurts, not always writing a poem a day but drafting enough poems to keep me roughly on track to reach 30 poems this month. Here’s today’s offering, inspired by new curtains, laundry, and a thought-provoking new book about acedia.

Ironing My Life

I am ignoring wrinkled things:
the cafe-striped curtain with crooked creases
down its mocha folds,
the table runner whose bright white flowers
are shadowed by restive wrinkles,
and my favorite red coat,
whose buttoned cuffs and belted waist
beg for a bit of steam-straightening.

Why do I so often resist
what I know is good for me?
Why do I avoid laying my life out
on the ironing board
and pressing away the creases
that, left unchecked,
may turn into deep grooves that will send me
off the path?

Perhaps the answer is simply to fill
the iron and press the On button,
knowing when it heats I will remember,
even desire, the comforting, cleansing power
of steam.

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